The video game industry is full of some pretty baffling premises. When the original Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002, the marriage of Final Fantasy and Disney seemed fated to be a confusing and unholy commercial alliance. But I, like many, was pleasantly surprised by the result. Beating the source of my childhood nightmares into submission with a blunted sword proved to be quite cathartic, and doing so side-by-side with Yuffie and Squall only sweetened the deal. The story was nostalgic and sweet, the worlds jaw-droppingly well actualized, and the combat unimaginative but nonetheless enjoyable.
Publisher: Square Enix
Sep. 29, 2009
By the time a formal sequel was released four years later, the KH franchise had–like its main voice actor–gone through an uncomfortable voice change.‚ The combat became faster, flashier, and more enjoyable, true–but the story began to distance itself from Ma Disney and Pa Square with the inclusion of strange new characters and baffling retcons.‚ The newest installment of the series, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days for Nintendo DS, continues this journey into strange territory in a format that fans of the series can’t help but recognize.
What immediately caught my attention with this game are the graphics.‚ Unlike Chain of Memories, Square declined to downgrade to 2-D graphics and attempted to produce a PS2 experience in a DS game.‚ The results are surprisingly good: the 3D worlds look and feel very much the same as they did in KH1 and KH2.‚ Although camera controls can be a bit slippery, the game makes the best of the DS’s button capabilities.‚ Overall, this is one of the best designed DS games I’ve played, and it earns even more points for minimal use of microphone/stylus gimmicks.
Like in Chain of Memories, where your character’s progression was based off their card deck, 358/2 Days has a unique leveling control system.‚ You are given control of a tetris-like grid and given the option to fill it with a limited number of spells, items, and effects that will guide how your character behaves in battle.‚ It’s a little limiting but it’s an interesting approach, and I fully support supplemental games such as these experimenting with established mechanics.
Speaking of experimentation: you’ll notice I said that the worlds look and feel the same as they did in previous games.‚ This leads me to the most disappointing aspect of the game: repetition.‚ Yep, you’ll be going to Agrahbah again, just like you did in the last three games.‚ The music and sound design are the same you’ve heard in the last three games.‚ The menu and battle systems are identical as well.‚ Now, of course I believe in not-fixing that which is not-broke, but this is getting a little ridiculous.‚ The game has a very narrow scope–you won’t (or shouldn’t) play it if you haven’t played all the previous games and enjoyed them, so odds are high that you’ll be experiencing some serious deja vu.‚ Matters are only made worse by almost two hours of hand-holding tutorials that even this game’s youngest players would have to roll their eyes at.‚ After all the tutorials and expositional cutscenes, it feels like an eternity before you begin playing the game, and it makes the disappointment of traveling the same levels all the more acute.
There are some fun new elements, such as being able to play as any Organization XIII member.‚ I love playing as villains, and Square seems to know it; Sephiroth, Edea, Beatrix, and Seymour in all their overpowered glory have all been brief party members, as if to rub it in your face how strong and awesome they are before snatching them away.‚ I wholeheartedly admit that it’s just as fun in 358/2 Days.‚ It allows you to experiment with different styles of combat and helps you get through the repetitiveness of the environments.‚ I played this game on vacation and had no opportunity to try out the multiplayer option, but based on the game’s party mechanics I bet it’s a successful new addition.
But I confess that Organization XIII as a whole leaves me bemused and confused.‚ Like the characters of KH1 they are given a very finite amount of introduction and development, but those were beloved childhood figures; Ariel and Tarzan didn’t need excessive explaining.‚ Organization XIII and its goals seem aimless and unexplained.‚ As 99.9% of them are allegedly attractive males, I can’t help but feel the franchise is indulging its fantastic character designer (spokesman for the belt and zipper industry Tetsuya Nomura) while simultaneously pandering to its uncharacteristically sizable female audience.‚ This female gamer finds herself less moved by spiky bishonen than by good character evolution; what was so wrong with Maleficent that she needed to be supplanted by some jerk with too many x’s in his name?
Plot twists and turns include body cloning, memory cloning, and cloning in general.‚ The game as it stands is like a PSA against natural procreation.‚ While it makes great character drama to consider the duality of the human condition and the nature of individuality, I’m wary of the series devolving into a confusing mess of a soap opera for created characters and their existential angst.‚ The game wasn’t without some charming details and dialogue, but it just felt like a distraction.
Clearly I feel trepidation about the future of this franchise.‚ KH1 was the smiling five year-old girl: good-natured and charming in her simplicity.‚ Now she’s a surly fourteen year-old and I’m left to worry that the black lipstick is more than just a phase.‚ Perhaps I’m jaded by the distance we’ve traveled from that bizarrely successful premise.‚ The central mysteries of the original game have never been answered, and we seem to have abandoned them in favor of newer, sexier ones.‚ I caught myself reminiscing about the good old days when the point of the game was to travel to Disney worlds, lock them up tighter than a drum, and whistle while you worked.‚ And Final Fantasy characters? ‚ Forget them–they have vanished entirely, leaving only unsatisfying moogle shopkeepers to fill the void.
Blast Factor: That said, this game is exceptionally well executed, and if you’re still invested in the story, you’ll probably enjoy traversing the same worlds to get the same story from a different perspective.‚ But if you’re like me and feeling a little anxious, you can probably skip this title; you’ll likely further confuse your understanding of the story, and speed the process of disenchantment before the next true sequel is released.‚ I think the litmus test is to ask yourself how you feel about the title itself.‚ It’s pronounced “Kingdom Hearts Three-Fifty-Eight Days Over Two.”‚ Does this represent something pleasantly intriguing or obnoxiously hard to understand?
For my money, I think there’s a marketing executive somewhere who needs to reevaluate his or her calling.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is available exclusively on the Nintendo DS, and retails for $34.99. A copy of this game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes.